Nudes as Art - Beautiful? Sensual? Sexy?

Leaving aside the issues of porn-as-porn, or life drawings that aim to accomplish some goal other than the depiction of human beauty (of which there are many):

It always seemed to me this was a no-brainer – if it’s in museums, it’s Art. And nothing else.

But you know, lately it seems to me that the beauty being celebrated in life drawing is, still, also about sexuality.

In fact, I’m not sure the two are entirely separate. It’s seeming to me that our aesthetic response to human beauty is also a sexual response, or the beginnings of one.

When it comes to the old stuff, I’m not sure that some of it wasn’t (also) Tasteful Porn.


I’d somewhat define porn as “things made with the intention of having people masturbate as they gaze upon”. I don’t think there was probably a lot of that post Roman era, at least.

I’d certainly say that the point of a lot of was likely to have been nothing more than eye candy–similar to having your action stars all be thin non-muscular babes with long legs in tight fitting outfits–which is certainly drawing on human sexual desires but not ultimately porn.

I think your initial assumption that capital-a Art is divorced from sexuality was simply flawed.

Ultimately, great art provokes an emotion, and it’s not surprising that the stuff that we are still admiring centuries later does a really good job of that. Sexuality is a big part of our emotional lives, so yeah, some of it probably can be considered “tasteful porn.”

Anyway, whether a nude can be considered sexual or not depends on the piece and whether sexuality and nudity are inextricably linked in your mind. Naturally, YMMV applies.

To use a couple of extremely well-known nudes as examples:

I think Botticelli’s Birth of Venus is extremely sensual. I wouldn’t be surprised if a person who’s tastes ran to women found it sexual as well. (In retrospect, I wonder if I subconsciously considered that when I chose to hang a big poster of it on my wall when I was in college.)

In contrast, I never found anything sexual or sensual about Michelangelo’s David. I see it as a celebration of human beauty. Of course I tried to look at it that way because of this thread, but beyond a very matter-of-fact “yeah, I’d hit that” thought, I still don’t think it’s sexy.

Yeah, I think you’re right, I misunderstood the intent years ago.

Actually the obscenity arguments muddied the issue for me. Sexual = porn = obscene, to some. So I took it the other way and argued beauty =/ sexual. That’s not true, though.

Ok, some thoughts. I think some of it was also certainly tasteful porn. Let us consider the alleged “safe” nude: 16th century Italy. Venus of Urbino , say.

How was this actually received? What kind of emotional response did it evoke? What was erotic at the time? In a way I suspect that at one level our understanding of these is blinded by our modern notions: I think we’re heirs to a Victorian mindset which not quite intuitively shields us from old smut. One of these notions is our handy modern English differentiation between ‘naked’ and ‘nude’: Kenneth Clarke (influential art historian of days of yore) explained, for example, that the naked figure is deprived of clothes and experiences a kind of embarrassment that most of us feel at this condition, while the nude had no uncomfortable overtone.

And this is how we get first year students to sit in their seats quietly while we look at these things. “This isn’t pornography or dirty—this is art.” However, the distinction doesn’t exist in Italian—there is just one word, naked, nude, it’s all nudo. By forgetting this distinction it lets understand that these images could have all kind of functions and meanings, sometimes apparently contradictory.

In past art history scholars sometimes jumped through amazing symbolic hoops to erotically neutralize these images. But “art” at the time didn’t exist in this particular purified and sanitary realm away from the world of emotional and even physical responses.

BUT erotic at that time perhaps wasn’t on the other hand completely synonymous with our concept of that, either. What kind of difference was there between our notions of erotic and pornographic?

Other more recent problems in earlier art history: For example, traditional art history for a long time talked at length about the classical beauty of the nude like this or in baroque complicated iconographic/symbolic discussions in order to avoid the elephant in the parlor. So the Venus of Urbino, say, was, according to a lot of art historians, not a regular women but a goddess, Venus, and then not even just the sensual Venus of mythology but some cooked-up celestial/cosmic Venus, a reference to the joys of marital fidelity and safe things like that.

On the one hand, though, There’s clearly something marital about all of this.
In form (horizontal panel-- that form factor’s not typical) and content is relates closely to the cassoni panels of the previous century—the painted interior lids of marriage chests (usually commissioned by the groom or his family as a wedding gift and were used as sort of cedar chests for her nice clothes)
A bridal context explains some odd details of the picture: servants fussing around in a cassone. So on the one hand a signifier of marriage and procreation and all that. But what’s the difference, in those days, between “marital” and “naughty”? Isn’t marital just a functional and fruitful naughty?

But it’s not as easy as that—we don’t have the documentation to defend this entirely. Guidobaldo della Rovere bought the picture from Titian in 1538—the year in which he became Duke of Urbino, and in writing to his agent in Venice Guidobaldo just refers to the picture as “la donnna nuda”—the nude/naked woman. He was late in paying and was afraid Titian would go ahead and sell it to someone else. Vasari (big historian and near-contemporary documentarian) saw the picture a decade later and described it as una venere giovanetta—a young Venus, although it has none of Venus’ traditional attributes.

So maybe it refers to marriage—thus goddess of love with the doggie representing fidelity and the myrtle in the window sill (traditional marriage symbol) and cassoni and all that. BUT it was painted 4 years after Guildobaldo’s marriage to his 11 year-old at the time fiance. And it’s an absolutely contemporary setting with no attributes—nothing to connect it to Venus. Was Vasari just wrong? (he does tend towards the prudish)

Was it a little naughty? In Venice, especially there was a whole class of painting that they kept carefully covered up with velvet curtains in mixed company. We know of a pile of not-so generic “Genevras” and "Floras " painted and now received as portraits of hot women showing one breast and holding flowers , and we’re starting the generally accept that these are paintings of clients’ favorite professionals (apparently the name Flora was sort of the equivalent of Trixie in prostitution-rich Venice). And then there images similar to Titian’s, but with the nude woman outdoors asleep, one in the Hypnerotomachia Polifili in which the sleeping nude is about to be harassed by (putti? a satyr? can’t remember) or one by um. . . Giuliano (?) Campagnola, where the nude woman out in the countryside is turned away from us and seems to have her hand stuffed in her crotch in a non-pudica sort of way.

And Venice was, of course, home to the worlds first printed porn, with text by respectable author Aretino and images by respectable painter Giulio Romano (“I Modi”-- most/all copies destroyed although there was a bad copy that circulated a bit later).

Meanwhile. . . even IF she’s a goddess, does that really remove the problem? Consider the Aphrodite of Knidos(maybe Praxiteles, maybe not). Roman historian Pliny says that the people of island of Kos commissioned this and then balked and ordered instead one with clothes, and that the people of Knidos snatched it up and profited from it—it became very famous very fast and was a tourist attraction, apparently of sometime a filthy sort. Pliny notes that “some visitors were overcome with love for the statue” and that this love took a very sticky protein-stain sort of form. And that’s the most chaste of chaste classical nuder art, the Venus “pudica” type-- ‘modest’. Hah.

(I can like to more putatively SFW but probably not historically-so works!)

I was hoping you’d take the time to post, capybara. :slight_smile:

So I’m wondering, speaking in practical terms, do you hang nudes in your living room? What kind of message does it send nowadays? Does it matter if they’re old or new?

I love drawing nudes, male or female, doesn’t matter, but I’m not sure about hanging them in my home. Not where my friends and their kids are likely to see them. My old arguments about the high-mindedness of Fine Art just don’t work anymore. I think it IS sexy as all get out, even while it’s also beautiful; that’s part of the fun.

I think it was Manet’s “Olympia” that was the first non-goddess nude painting that was widely exhibited in 1863, and because it was a “real” person who was nude, it caused quite an uproar. Her pose and her stare are still shocking - remember this picture is 51" by 74" (or over 4x6 feet).

I included this picture in a talk at our US Civil War roundtable (“the other things happening during the civil war”) and kept it up on the wall for about two minutes - people started squirming after about 30 seconds.

Nude-figure art was pioneered in ancient Greece, and, as Thomas Cahill pointed out in *Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea,* there was porn in ancient Greece too, and there was always a clear artistic difference intended and perceived between porn and ordinary nudes. (The latter were displayed in public; pornographic pieces were not.)

That looks like a great read, BrainGlutton, thanks!

Was it the advent of Christianity? The Romans seemed to have a LOT of nude art-floor mosaics, bathouse paintings, etc. Did Christianity end all of this? Or was it Europe getting colder 9and people having to wear more clothes). How did people get so worked up by pictures, with casual nudity so common in the Classical world?

Not sure of what you are asking but I will put my spin. I am a retired professional dancer. Dancers in my day could easily fall into a “no dancers land” if you will. To be more specific, my dance specialty was ballet. Within that world there are some dancers who achieve their life goals by performing for reputable companies. For those that do not make the cut with a company and whom want to continue to dance professionally, the options can range from what many view as semi seedy to outright sleaze. It is all within the perspective of the audience members. I danced in a show in Macau that many would call “sleaze.” Many others called it “beautiful, sexy.”

The issue isn’t, I think, artistic or pornographic, but artistic “or” photographic. With a photo or video, that’s a real person nekkid there, and that adds a whole other dimension to the viewing experience. I also think this goes a very long way toward explaining why, culturally, violence is more acceptable than sexuality in American entertainment. We know that ultraviolence, at least in the mainstream, is fake; ultrasex is very, obviously real.

I used to watch Sister Wendy and her art appreciation series. I’m not looking it up right now, but I remember a lesson of one nice nude, or semi-nude painting. She was describing the creamy skin-tones and beautiful flow of skin, um… tones and stuff and I could almost smell her getting, um… wet, um… down there. :eek: She was clearly sensually, if not totally sexually into this painting. Yeah, she thought it was beautiful too.